Due to popular demand (that is, my friend Scott asked), I will tell you what I thought of Jon Robin Baitz's play Other Desert Cities, directed by Joe Mantello and with a stellar cast comprised of Stockard Channing, Judith Light, Stacy Keach, Justin Kirk and Rachel Griffiths.
First thing that takes your breath away is the set by John Lee Beatty. It's the living room of a mid-century home in Palm Springs and it is so perfect in so many ways, that every time my attention flagged I just marveled at the set. The lighting is spectacular too, for there is a high window behind which you can see two palm trees, and the color of the desert sky changes completely accurately from morning to dusk to night. I could write an entire paean about the set decoration, but I don't even know how to call things. However, if you ever perused an Architectural Digest from the seventies, you will immediately recognize the style. Modern, cream colored, trying hard to be tasteful. A living room that wishes to soothe and to offend no one.
And so it is with this wealthy Republican family, the all-American Wyeths, living their retirement glory days in Palm Springs. Stacy Keach, who is excellent, plays a retired actor who was chums with Ronnie and Nancy Reagan, the astounding Stockard Channing plays his wife Polly, who insists on brandishing a goyish Texas twang even though she's Jewish, the extraordinary Judith Light plays her fucked up ex-alcoholic sister Silda Grauman (both were in showbiz in LA), Justin Kirk (from Weeds) who gets better as the play goes along, plays their son Trip, who produces a reality law show were the judges are celebrities, and Rachel Griffiths plays their daughter Brooke, an unabashed liberal who has fled to the East Coast and written a memoir about a family tragedy that threatens to tear the family apart.
Brooke's role is tough to nail. Baitz wants to confound the expectations of what he knows to be his smugly liberal audience by making Brooke's parents very charming and funny while the daughter is a monster of whining. As played by Griffiths, the one element in the production that is a tragic mistake, Brooke is a pill, and she is so grating and unconvincing, that I almost switched party allegiance on her account. There are American actresses Griffith's age who could have better understood the passage from a California golden child to a depressive, insufferable East Coast neurotic. Mary Louise Parker, a talented actress I find hugely hammy, comes to mind. That I'd rather watch her than endure Griffiths' reaching for emotion, not able to find the sympathetic nugget at Brooke's core, is saying something. Martha Plimpton, Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon, Edie Falco, Lily Taylor, we could go on. I did not believe Griffith's grief, nor did I believe her adopted East Coastness, too blunt and unsubtle. She seems to be trying really hard. And because she is at the tragic center of the play, if you don't believe her pain, the play is thrown off balance and all the artifice in it shows.
However, the greatest joy of the evening comes from watching a trio of amazing veterans who are truly electrifying: Channing, Light and Keach. They all find layers of nuance into the broadness of their characters: Peppy Palm Springs Society Matron, Over The Hill Hollywood Drunk, Ex Handsome Bad Actor. Channing in particular blew me away. Her Polly is a no non-sense wisecracker, trying to out-goy the goys, with the core of a lioness. Light is also fiercely funny, sad and brave as crazy Aunt Silda, and Keach is sweet and thundering, totally believable as an old Hollywood star, now swaddled in wealth and grief. They are all pitch perfect. Even Justin Kirk, who at the beginning is slightly grating, finds his footing, leaves the shtick behind and delivers beautifully in the second act.
The play is well written and has many funny moments. It straddles a very thin line between comedy and melodrama. For the most part, director Joe Mantello balances the jokes with the pathos admirably, which is no small feat. Sometimes the tone falls into his particular brand of shtick where all the characters speak in weird, affected cadences that try to be naturalistic and sound extremely theatrical. This is annoying, but it seems to go away as the play progresses.
My problem with the play is that the second act is one beat stretched to the limit, with a couple of bombshell revelations thrown in to spike it up. So Brooke wrote a tell-all where the parents come across as evil, selfish people who are just interested in keeping their political connections; but different points of view reveal the fragile nature of the "truth". The truth according to whom? There is a final twist in which Brooke learns she does not know the first thing about what really happened, and in the end the play is about reconciliation. I thought the ending was a cop out. Turns out that the parents did everything they did for selfless reasons. Republicans? Selfless? Oh, dear. Maybe it's the times, and maybe Baitz is a better man than I, but I find reconciliation with Republicans to be essentially impossible and thoroughly inadvisable. Who wrote this play, Barack Obama?
I commend Baitz for not writing the liberal screed his audience wants to cheer for. I commend him for going for nuance and complexity and attempting to shed light on the myths and versions of the truth that are at the core of every grieving family. But like they say in Mexican wrestling, when I go to the theater: "Quiero ver sangre!" I want to see blood!